Some critics think the team’s conclusions align too conveniently with Fish and Wildlife’s long-time goal to delist. However, Chris Servheen, the agency’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator, thinks that keeping grizzlies listed in spite of their recent successes will erode support for them, and for the Endangered Species Act. Bear numbers now surpass 500, one of the many minimum benchmarks for considering the population recovered. Servheen fears that keeping them listed will make it harder to drum up public support for bears beyond Yellowstone, in places like the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem in Montana and Idaho, the Selkirk Mountains, and Washington’s North Cascades. "We desperately need more support of the ESA so we have political support to get it (funded) properly," he says. “There are many people who would like to see the ESA fail.”

Since delisting Yellowstone grizzlies would mean transferring management to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, bear advocates worry that the recommendation to delist might be tainted by state officials’ long-standing desire to regain control of bears. While any delisting plan would maintain today’s habitat protections in the bear’s nearly 6 million-acre recovery zone, along with limits on bear deaths, the states will also likely begin bear hunting.

After grizzlies killed four people in the Greater Yellowstone region over a two-year period, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead wrote then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2012, saying that two years was too long to wait for the results of the food study. Keeping bears listed (and thus harder for the state to control) threatened public safety, he implied. He added that Wyoming pays millions for bear management, yet has no jurisdiction over grizzlies. Salazar promised to consider delisting in 2014.

This makes David Mattson – whose work on the grizzly study team from 1979 to 1993 helped establish the links between bear behavior, population trends and whitebark pine – worry that politics have crept into the scientific process. “Science is politicized by the questions you ask and how you ask the question,” he says. Mattson, who was exiled from the grizzly world in the ‘90s for questioning delisting, is critical of the study’s methods, interpretations and motivations. He is especially displeased about the team’s unwillingness to release data to researchers outside the organization. (Van Manen says it’s because the large, complex datasets require historical background knowledge to use properly.)

Mattson and others also think the report doesn’t fully address the way increased meat-eating, especially of large animals like elk or livestock, could put bears at risk for lethal run-ins with people, should they venture down from high-elevation whitebark territory.

Meanwhile, the national environmental law group Earthjustice and the Bozeman-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which were involved in the earlier delisting suits, are waiting until the research project’s results have appeared in peer-reviewed journals and a new delisting rule has been published before they judge the food study or the pro-delisting vote.

Neither Earthjustice nor Mattson are convinced that bears can adapt to the climate and bark beetle-driven loss of whitebark without a cost. “These ecosystems are already changing, and the Yellowstone grizzly bear shows us how deeply this (climate change) issue will affect the potential survival of some of the things we really care a lot about,” says Tim Preso, an Earthjustice attorney for the Northern Rockies region.

If the impending delisting battle reinforces the view that grizzlies are climate change victims, it will help draw attention to the very real shifts happening in the ecosystem.  If grizzlies are in fact adapting, that’s good news, but it also means less iconic but struggling species will have to find their own way into the spotlight. The whitebark pine has yet to be added to the endangered species list.

Sarah Jane Keller is a contributor to High Country News. She tweets @sjanekeller.